Armour Mayor Rod Ward has been making presentations to the town councils in the Almaguin Highlands making the case for why they need to financially support new hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge with whatever they can afford. Rocco Frangione/Local Jouranlism InitiativeRocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative

“We should consider a good offer and not an insult (offer) to show we are serious about this”.

That’s the position of Joly town councillor Budd Brown on how the municipalities of Strong, Sundridge and Joly should approach their share of the cost to help build new hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge to service the Muskoka District and the Almaguin Highlands communities in Parry Sound District. Brown’s comments came at a tri-council meeting where the members of council were briefed about the massive cost of the twin build by Armour Mayor Rod Ward.

Ward has been visiting the Almaguin town councils over the last several weeks explaining why the hospitals have become very expensive to construct and why all the municipalities in the hospital catchment area face a very high bill as their local share of the project. 

Ward said the decision to build hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge with each offering different services was made in 2019. He said because they would have different services, the project was categorized as a single hospital with one campus in Huntsville and the other in Bracebridge.

The cost of the project in 2019 was estimated at $561 million and of that, $129 million was the local share for all the municipalities.

But Ward said inflation and COVID made those estimates obsolete and the latest figures have pegged the total cost of the project at $967 million with $225-million of that amount coming from stakeholders in both districts. Although the Muskoka area municipalities and hospital foundations will pick up the lion’s share of the local amount, the 12 Almaguin communities have been asked to pay about $11.25 million as their share which would be raised over 12 years.

To date, only McMurrich/Monteith town council and Armour council have committed to their share.

During his presentations to the Almaguin town councils Ward has been asked why Armour council committed to its share so quickly.

His response at the tri-council meeting was “I can’t have this discussion with other councils and the public if my own council doesn’t back me up”.

Ward made it very clear to the three councils that if all stakeholders can’t commit to their local share of the project by the end of the year “the project dies”. 

“This is not a tactic on the part of the province”, Ward added.

He said the project really dies with no word on when it will resurface.

Ward also acknowledged that the local share formula is flawed when applied to rural communities like those in the North compared to those in Southern Ontario. He said a similar hospital project in Niagara will cost about $1 billion and the local share is around $212 milion.

Ward says the difference is the Niagara region has many more businesses to draw taxes from and hundreds of thousands of more people compared to the population and business base in Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts.

“They have a lot more ability to raise this money,” Ward said and questioned why the same formula was being applied to rural communities.

Ward told the tri-council that the riding’s MP Scott Aitchison and MPP Graydon Smith are both “keenly aware of this”.

“They know the situation and are working on a solution,” he said. “But we can’t assume they’ll be able to solve that problem.”

Ward said it was best to assume the riding’s representatives won’t succeed and the Almaguin communities should expect to pay the $11.25 million as their share. The tri-council also heard the Almaguin communities will hold back 20 percent of their total share of the hospital commitment that will be used for healthcare purposes in the Highlands although how it is specifically used has not yet been determined. The fact that the three communities also have a local medical centre which they fund wasn’t lost on Ward.

He acknowledged the three municipalities might not be able to pay what was fully asked of them.

“We’re asking each what they can commit to,” Ward said.

Strong Mayor Tim Bryson said it was unlikely the municipalities would pay their full share and suggested they decide on a lower amount. Bryson said it’s easier later to increase the lower commitment rather than commit to a higher amount now only to try and claw it back in the future. Bryson also said if the hospitals are built, although Hunstville and Bracebridge will benefit the most from job creation, the Almaguin region will also get some of the economic benefits just on a smaller scale.

That’s a good news situation but Sundridge Mayor Justine Leveque asked where would these people live in Almaguin given that the Highlands are currently experiencing a housing shortage.
Leveque believed the three communities definitely need to contribute something to the hospital project.

“What that is, I’m not 100 percent sure,” she added.

Leveque also said each council should talk to their residents “to see how they’re feeling about the situation” before the individual town councils vote on what they will ultimately contribute.

By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative

Original Published on Apr 11, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   North Bay Nugget   North Bay, Ontario
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